CDC doctor Timothy Jerrell Cunningham, 35, who had been missing since February 12, has been found dead, Atlanta Police say. The body of the Harvard graduate and commander at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recovered near the Chattahoochee River in northwest Atlanta on April 3. A few days later, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed his identity through dental records. At the time, the chief medical examiner Dr. Jan Gorniak said the preliminary cause of death is drowning. In late May, his death was ruled a suicide by drowning.
“There was no signs of foul play,” Gorniak said in April. “Since the investigation is still open, we do not have a manner of death, whether it’s an accident, a suicide or anything other than that.”
On May 21, 2018, officials ruled his death a suicide. Toxicology tests showed nothing significant, there were no signs of trauma, and it was still not known how he ended up in the river. The investigation is now closed, Atlanta police have said.
Major Michael O’Connor, who leads the missing persons unit for the Atlanta Police Department, said at a press conference on April 3, “…At this point we have no indication of foul play involving Dr. Cunningham … We’ve been conducting an investigation since the time that we were notified that the doctor was missing and during the course of that investigation, we have interviewed employees at the CDC, we’ve interviewed friends, we’ve interviewed family members, we’ve tracked his last movements, we’ve talked to a lot of people, we’ve looked at a lot of different factors and through all of that, we have nothing that indicates foul play.”
Cunningham left work feeling sick and had not been since since then. His family has said that certain communications they had with him before he disappeared left them worried. But no matter what was happening, he would never abandon his beloved dog, a job he loved, or his friends and loved one, they said. His family partnered with Crime Stoppers of Greater Atlanta to offer a $10,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest, Fox 5 reported.
Here’s what you need to know about Tim Cunningham:
1. Cunningham’s Body Was Found by Fishermen & the Medical Examiner Says the Condition of His Body Is Consistent With His Having Died on February 12
Police found Tim Cunningham near the Chattahoochee River on Tuesday, April 3, after fishermen called that night to report they had found a body in a muddy area along the bank of the Chattahoochee River. The medical examiner confirmed his identity and says the state of his body is consistent with him having died on February 12, the last day he was seen. The medical examiner later ruled, on May 21, that he had died of suicide by drowning.
“Based on the condition of the body is the condition of the body is consistent with him being gone since February 12,” Dr. Jan Gorniak, the chief medical examiner for Fulton County, said on April 3. “We can’t pinpoint it any closer than that, but the changes that we did see have been consistent since then.”
The Atlanta Fire Department’s “swift water rescue” team was deployed to the incident and recovered Cunningham’s body, officials said.
“Back on February 23, the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department did in fact search the Chattahoochee River from Marietta Boulevard down stream to Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, which is close to where Mr. Cunnignham’s body was found,” Sergeant Cortez Stafford, a fire department spokesman, said at the press conference in early April. “During that search we did not find any indication or signs of a body being in the river at that time. We did a very thorough search of the riverbanks, both sides of the riverbanks, up stream and down stream, and did not encounter any indication that we discovered a body there.”
Stafford added, “This past Tuesday we were called out to that same area along Donald Lee Hollowell and the Chattahoochee River area for the recovery of a body and did in fact recover a body from that scene. It was very difficult terrain, very difficult to access that location where Mr. Cunningham was found, it was in a remote area that’s not easily accessible by walking trails, it was a very technical operation, identifying where the location of the body was and also maintaining scene integrity so that the Atlanta Police Department could do their job and make sure that the scene was preserved to preserve the investigation.”
Fire Rescue Sergeant Alex Hofstadter, who was part of that rescue team, said at the press conference, “The area was inaccessible through walking.”
Atlanta Police Major Michael O’Connor told reporters the river is not far from Cunningham’s home.
“We do know he was a jogger and he was wearing his favorite jogging shoes at the time that he was found,” O’Connor said. “I can’t tell you that he was jogging, but those things together seem to indicate that’s a possibility. Barring new information coming forward, we may never be able to tell you how he got into the river. We’re not sure where he got into the river at, at this point. We just don’t have those answers at this time.”
O’Connor was asked whether it made sense that Cunningham would be jogging without his keys and wallet. He said they did find it “extremely unusual” that he was missing without his keys, wallet, ID and other personal belongings.
“As to his personal habits, I can’t say, if he didn’t intend to purchase anything, maybe he didn’t need his wallet, I don’t really know why he didn’t have the things in his pockets,” O’Connor said. “I know we recovered three crystals, and was an avid collector of these kinds of crystals or rocks, or rare stone, and three of them were located in a pocket in his clothing at the time that he was recovered.”
On Monday, February 12, Cunningham went to work at the CDC in Chamblee, Georgia. Friends said he was feeling sick and went home early, intending to finish his work for the day at home. No one saw him after that. There are no records of any Uber or Lyft transactions that day.
“Tim is the consummate professional,” his brother, Anterio Cunningham, told Fox 5 Atlanta. “He loves his job. He wouldn’t just cast it aside. He’s worked hard to get where he is.”
Cunningham had many great things going on in his life, his family and friends say. He was very close to his sister, his brother, and his parents. He had a beautiful home and a dog that he adored.
Police have said there was no evidence of foul play. However, one odd encounter has been uncovered. His neighbor, Viviana Tory, said that Cunningham told her husband to have her erase his cell phone number from her contacts list. The police do not have all the specific about that exchange, ABC News reported.
Cunningham’s job was challenging, but the brilliant young man had always been up to the task, according to those who knew him. He was a commander in the US Health Service Corps, his family said, and as part of his job was sent to respond to public health emergencies like the Zika virus, the Ebola virus, or natural disasters, ABC reported.
According to his CDC bio, he was a team lead with the CDC’s Division of Population Health and trained with the CDC as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer. His family said he was recently promoted to Commander, 11 Alive reported.
Family and friends searched parks, hospitals, and medical facilities with no news. His brother, Anterio, said he was worried something bad might have happened to him. “My first mind is that something has happened especially considering the length of time he’s been gone. Not having his phone, leaving his dog Bo alone, he just wouldn’t voluntarily check out like that.”
Pat Upshaw-Monteith, president and CEO of Leadership Atlanta, told CNN that Cunningham was one of the organization’s highest-level volunteers. She recently met with him, and everything seemed to be going very well. “And then for him to disappear, it just doesn’t add up,” she said.
2. His Dog, Wallet & Keys Were Locked Inside His House — But Two Windows Were Left Open
When Cunningham’s parents, Tia and Terrell Cunningham, traveled from Maryland to search for him, they found strange clues in his home. His phone, wallet, credit cards, debit cards, passport, and keys were locked inside his house on Harry Brooks Drive in the Riverside neighborhood of Altanta. (They were able to get in with a spare key.) His SUV was parked at his home. And his beloved dog was still inside his house, left all alone, WSB-TV reported. This was absolutely not in his character, his parents said, because he would never intentionally leave his dog, Mr. Bojangles Cunningham (Bo for short), alone. Cunningham’s Tibetan spaniel had gone with him to Harvard twice. Cunningham had even driven 130 miles to Tuskegee, Alabama, just to get the dog’s teeth cleaned. He just wouldn’t have left the dog alone like that, his parents said.
Another strange thing they noticed was that two of the windows in his home were left open. This alarmed them, they told NBC, because it was very out of character. He was very environmentally conscious and wouldn’t have normally left those windows open, they believed.
“Every single belonging that we are aware of was located in the residence,” O’Connor said. “So his keys, his cell phone, credit cards, debit cards, wallet, all his Identification, passport — everything you can think of, we’ve been able to locate. None of those items are missing. The circumstances of this one — just beyond the fact that he is a CDC employee — but just as a general person are unusual in that everything that you would need to sustain yourself is at his home. So there is no real explanation for that.”
Police looked at his browser history on his desktop computer and found nothing suspicious on it, WSB-TV reported. He hadn’t used his swipe card to check into the CDC since his disappearance. His government credit cards also hadn’t been used. CDC surveillance cameras did not show him leaving the facility, and he wasn’t seen on camera returning to his garage, where his car was later found parked. This doesn’t mean he didn’t do those things, just that he was not seen on camera and clues cannot be found that way.
Cunningham was an intelligent, talented young man, his familysaid. “He’s a scientist, so he has a very methodical mindset and an outgoing personality,” a family member told 11 Alive. He graduated from Morehouse, and he earned his S.M. and Sc.D. from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Activist and writer Shaun King posted on Facebook that he went to school with Cunningham at Morehouse.
His dad, Terrell Cunningham, said his son was very close to his family and it was very unusual for him not to contact them or respond to calls. “This is not normal. This is definitely out of the ordinary.”
In fact, his family is so close that they all just went and stayed together at a resort in Cabo San Lucas for Terrell’s 60th birthday. All three children — Anterio, Tiara, and Tim — joined their parents there. Terrell said he had feared that Tim wouldn’t be able to go because he was so busy working, but he made it. “It was so good to see Tim having so much fun, because he is such a hard worker,” his dad said. “Very seldom does he have the time to just let go. It was awesome.”
3. His Family Said Something About His Texts Before He Disappeared Had Worried Them, While the CDC Said He Was Actually Not Passed Up for a Promotion
Cunningham’s sister typically stays in touch with him on a regular basis, 11 Alive reported. She spoke to him on Monday about 7:15 a.m., the day he disappeared, while he was on his way to work. She may have been one of the last people to talk to him, except for the colleagues who saw him at the CDC. His mother also received a text from Cunningham that Monday at 5:21 a.m., CNN reported. The text simply read: “Are you awake?” Her phone was on silent. “I wish I had that opportunity to answer that text,” she told CNN. ABC News reported that he called his mom while he was driving home from work, around 9:12 a.m., but didn’t leave a message.
His family had also talked to him a lot on Sunday, the day before he disappeared, his parents told NBC News. His father, Terrell, said something about those communications made him worried, but he didn’t elaborate. “I pinpoint Sunday because there were some exchanges via phone as well as text that alerted me to be concerned about our son.” Then when he didn’t return calls or texts, they got even more concerned. His parents have shared the texts with detectives, but are keeping the nature of the messages private for now, his father said.
A close friend, Joe Carlos, spoke to him just a week prior and Cunningham seemed fine, Uproxx reported. They had purchased tickets to an event for Morehouse’s anniversary, and had planned to hang out before the VIP reception.
Early reports from colleagues and police said that about a week before February 12, he was told that he was not getting the promotion he had wanted. He called in sick on Thursday, February 8 or Friday, February 9, but did go to work February 5 & 6, ABC News reported. He came back to work on Monday, February 12, and multiple sources said that his supervisor explained to him why he wasn’t getting the promotion. Co-workers said he was upset about the decision. After the meeting, he asked to go home sick again, said Major Michal O’Connor of the Atlanta Police. The police have stressed that investigators have not uncovered any evidence that the promotion had anything to do with his disappearance. “We’re open to any and all possibilities,” O’Connor said.
On March 12, the CDC announced that Cunningham was not recently passed up for a promotion, despite what local police had said. CDC Director Dr. Anne Schuchat said in a statement:
Today marks one month since Commander (CDR) Timothy Cunningham was last seen, and we have not given up hope that he will soon be found. If Tim reads this message, we hope you come home soon. If anyone reading this has information about the whereabouts of Commander Cunningham, please come forward.
There has been news coverage that Commander Cunningham recently did not receive a promotion. As many of his colleagues in the USPHS have pointed out, this information is incorrect. In fact, he received an early promotion/exceptional proficiency promotion to Commander effective July 1, 2017, in recognition of his exemplary performance in the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS). Over and above any of his assignments at CDC, his early promotion within the USPHS reflects his excellence as an officer and an employee.
CDC continues to work closely with the family, Atlanta Police Department, and others in the continuing search for CDR Cunningham. If you have any information which could be helpful, please call 9-1-1 or the Atlanta Police Department at 404-546-4235.
But Atlanta Police Sergeant John Chafee has said that the department still stands behind everything that was said about Cunningham’s employment, CBS News reported. “Our information came directly from the CDC,” he said.
During the investigation, Cunningham’s parents told investigators that he had never been diagnosed with depression, although he did have mood swings, AJC reported.
4. He Received a ’40 Under 40′ Award in November and Said His Passion for His Work Sustains Him
He was honored in the “40 Under 40 Awards” in November for professional and community accomplishments. He told the Atlanta Business Chronicle that he loved his job, but his work wasn’t always easy. However, his passion for his work sustained him, he said.
“Love what you do,” he said. “Do not quit. Keep going. During the bad, pick yourself up and learn from it. Finally, take time to celebrate during the good times.” Important skills for success, he said, include being flexible, being aware of inherent biases, and being open-minded and willing to learn. “Open yourself up to get to know people different from you and let them know you as well.”
Cunningham has already become the target of a fake news, hoax story. YourNewsWire published a story on February 22 claiming that Cunningham had told them the flu vaccine was dangerous and to go public if anything happened to him. They gave nothing to back up that claim. In fact, YourNewsWire is known for attaching outrageous quotes to people. The site claimed on February 24 that Obama tweeted a “creepy” message to anti-gun teens. But Obama’s tweet actually read: “How inspiring to see … so many smart, fearless students … organizing to remake the world as it should be. We’ve been waiting for you.” His tweet wasn’t creepy, simply supportive. YourNewsWire has made other strange claims in the past. In November 2017, for example, they claimed that Keanu Reeves said Hollywood elites drank the blood of children. Later they took down the story and pointed the URL to a different article. In fact, Cunningham has spoken positively about vaccines in the past. You can listen to a short two-minute podcast he gave in 2011, where he encouraged children to get the flu vaccine. Cunningham’s father later addressed the rumor. “I must address this issue,” he said. “It is a lie. … It is not factual. Hopefully, he’ll come back and be able to address that.”
Despite rumors to the contrary, Cunningham also did not have access to the CDC’s infectious disease unit. “He had no access to classified material,” O’Connor said. “He would not be the type of person that, you know, if you kidnapped him and held him, he could give you access to some horrific virus that could be a real problem for the rest of us.”
Cunningham had worked for the CDC since 2010. Prior to that, he worked for a year as an analyst with the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Health Care in Atlanta. He wrote numerous research papers, and you can find links to them all here. His topics included studying racial disparities in mortality and sleep duration, studying COPD and cigarette smoking, health-related behaviors by urban classification, and more. Thirty-one papers are listed on his ResearchGate site. He’s been quoted by news sources for his papers. For example, he talked to WGBH News in 2017 about how the death rate in black Americans was declining, likely due to declines in heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
Friends said Cunningham was reliable, happy, and positive, NBC reported. He has a pristine record, one friend said, and was always available to meet friends for dinner or to help them move furniture — whatever they need. To help, his friends have raised more than $20,000 as a reward for information that leads to locating him.
5. His Friends Organized Search Efforts to Locate Cunningham
Cunningham often advocated for standing up for disparity and speaking out against wrongs that you see happening in society. During his interview about his “40 Under 40” Award, he told the Atlanta Business Chronicle that Colin Kaepernick was one of the people under 40 that he admires because he’s “fearless for protesting against racial injustice and standing up for what is right.” Now his friends are doing the same for him, and organizing an intense effort to find him. A group called #FindTimATLwas put together on Facebook to help in the search for him. The group shared and discussed efforts to canvas the region and search for Cunningham, along with sharing positive stories about him.
His friends coordinated their efforts to call local hospitals and organizations. In fact, a Google Doc was put together with a list of different places to contact, to help organize their efforts. His friends said he was smart, caring, and liked giving hugs — now they just want to find him and give him a hug right back.
Admins for the Atlanta Commissioned Officers Association said that police have talked to neighbors and had searched the woods behind Cunningham’s home with a dog on Friday, February 16. There have been no confirmed sightings of Tim.
His friends also created a GoFundMe to fund a reward for finding him.
His mom, Tia-Juana Cunningham, said: “There has been an outpouring of love from his neighbors and the community, but my main focus is just that my son returns home. Tim, if you see any of this information please know that you can come back home. We love and miss you. We just want you back in our arms.”